Sept. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Political independents, who account for more than one-quarter of the U.S. electorate and are probably the key to the 2012 presidential election, are voicing strong reservations about Barack Obama as well as the Republican brand.

As the national election goes into high gear with more than 13 months to go, the focus often is on polls showing the horse race among candidates. More instructive at this stage is how various segments of the American population, differentiated by age, gender, or other elements, are evolving.

Self-styled independents, almost by definition, are the most interesting demographic to watch. In 2008, they gave Obama an 8-point advantage, most of his margin of victory.

In the Bloomberg National Poll conducted this month, the incumbent president leads by 6 points among independents in a matchup against Texas Governor Rick Perry; Obama runs even among this group in a head-to-head race with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Even more troubling to the White House: Independents give the president bad marks on handling the economy, creating jobs and reducing the deficit.

More than three-quarters of political independents say the nation is moving in the wrong direction and an even larger share believe the U.S. is still in a recession or about to fall into one. By almost 2-to-1, they say they’re worse off than when Obama took office. And by a 3-to-2 margin, they don’t believe the jobs package he announced this month will lower unemployment.

The president needs to turn around some of these numbers to be re-elected.

Social Issues

Yet independents aren’t flocking to Republicans, either. By 57 percent to 32 percent they express unfavorable views about the party in general. The hard-line positions taken by Republican candidates on questions such as global warming or social issues make independents less likely to vote for them next year, the poll shows.

By better than 2-to-1 they blame congressional Republicans more than Obama for the dysfunction in Washington.

The centerpiece of the Republican agenda on both the congressional and presidential level is a vow not to use tax increases to curb deficit spending. That doesn’t sit well with independents; 56 percent favor increasing taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year, and a plurality says deficit reduction should focus more on tax increases than reductions in entitlement spending.

And independents give a resounding thumbs-down to the proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to replace Medicare with a system in which people would receive assistance to buy private health insurance.

Age Difference

Age is a leading indicator in U.S. elections. Three years ago, candidate Obama won almost two-thirds of the vote of Americans under 35; his Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, held about a 5-point margin with voters older than 55.

Those patterns still emerge in the Bloomberg poll, with subtle, potentially important changes on both ends. Those younger Americans favor the president over Romney, 55 percent to 37 percent, and give him a slightly larger lead over Perry. That means he’s running behind his last performance.

Among the older set -- 55 and over -- Romney beats Obama by 4 points while Perry runs slightly behind. This is relatively good news for the president.

Part of this reflects the cross-currents in the debate over curbing entitlements, Social Security and Medicare. The Republicans are stronger advocates of cuts, Democrats more likely to be resistant, though that often cuts against the grain of their chief age group supporters.

‘Ponzi Scheme’

For example, 55 percent of Americans under 35 -- who tend to be Democrats -- agree with Perry’s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme;” only 34 percent of those 55 and older agree.

The same role reversal is apparent when it comes to Ryan’s Medicare proposal. Younger respondents are evenly divided; senior citizens and those approaching that age category, who would be exempt from the change under the proposal, oppose it by 3 to 1.

Some of this, to be sure, reflects perceived self-interest. A majority of older citizens, many of whom no longer pay payroll taxes, like the notion of raising the amount of salary subject to Social Security taxes; younger Americans, subject to these taxes, are split on that issue.

The long-existing gender gap persists, with women decidedly more Democratic and men heavily Republican. A look at the political attitudes of moms and dads suggests some tense dinner-table conversations.

Women’s Optimism

Mothers clearly prefer Obama to any of his Republican opponents, give him reasonably high marks and say they are optimistic about things working out. A large majority of dads say they’ll definitely vote for anyone other than Obama next year and are more pessimistic about the economy and the country, with more than half saying they’ve given up hope.

Interestingly, Catholics, who make up about one-quarter of the American electorate, have become more anti-Obama judging by this survey and are more receptive to Republicans. Overall 46 percent of Catholic respondents have a favorable view of the Republican Party, while only about one-third of non-Catholics feel that way.

In the Republican field, Catholics give higher marks to Romney, a Mormon, than to Perry, the Protestant. There are other elements in these cross-tabulations that suggest a less predictable than usual election in 2012: The president runs ahead of Romney among Hispanics, though he falls short of the 67 percent to 31 percent margin he enjoyed in the last election. And the anti-government Tea Party, which played such a large role in the congressional elections a year ago, gets across-the-board negative marks, except from Republicans.

If there is an early message from such soundings it is this: America has an agitated and volatile electorate, so beware conventional wisdom and expect surprises.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Albert Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.